I wasn’t getting anything done. And I was working all the time. At least I felt like I was working. Everything I was doing felt like something that someone else was telling me to do. But no one was telling me to do anything. And that meant the voice that was telling me what to do was coming from inside me. Was I supposed to do what the voice said?
I was thinking about this question as I stood at the sink washing dishes.
You want to know why he has to fly?
I turned around. My son stood at the kitchen table holding a toy robot from a movie. He pressed a button and a pair of airplane wings popped out.
I asked: Why does he have to fly?
He hurt his legs in a fight.
How did he hurt them?
He got electricity in his legs when they were fighting. Because they were shooting electric lasers and two of them went into his legs so electric got into his legs.
I thought of the story of Hephaestus from the book of Greek myths I had read to him the night before.
Hephaestus was the son of Zeus and Hera. He was a gentle god and loved his parents. But his parents were always fighting. One day Zeus attacked Hera—and Hephaestus stepped between them. In a fit of rage Zeus seized Hephaestus by the legs and flung him from the top of Mount Olympus. The next day he landed on an island. His legs were broken forever.
I asked: What was the robot fighting against? Who was shooting lasers at his legs?
My son pressed a button and the robot’s fist launched from its arm—a falling punch. He picked the fist up from the floor and fastened it back.
Actually, he said, that’s not why he has to fly. Actually, it was like this. He shot his own fist at himself. That’s what happened. And there was a big explosion. And he was wrecked. His legs were wrecked. And his whole system was wrecked. And he was lying down on the ground, like the Iron Giant when Hogarth turns off the power.
And then what?
Then he wakes up. Because he hears a voice.
What does the voice say?
It tells him to remember what he’s supposed to do. But he can’t remember anything besides the big explosion. And he can’t walk anymore. He can’t walk anymore so he flies.
Where does he fly?
But where is he going? And why? He must be flying to find something.
He’s not trying to find anything. Just to keep moving. Just wants to keep moving, he said.
He went back to playing.
I went back to washing the dishes.
A gentle sea-goddess discovered Hephaestus on the beach and bound his wounds and nursed him back to health. He would never walk on his own power again, but he built two robots of silver and gold to help him move around. And when he returned to Olympus, Zeus forgave him.
I turned the water off. I stacked the clean dishes back in the cabinet above the sink. I filed the forks and knives into the silverware drawer. I cleaned the counters and swept the floor. I poured a glass of wine. I drank it. I drank another. Everything I was doing—even what I wasn’t doing—was a sentence I was reading on the page of my mind. And every sentence began at the end of the same word. I was aware of this word—and I wanted to erase it.
I wanted to forget that I was doing anything.
In the living room: Another mess. A flood of Legos and blocks overflowing the box of toys. I sat on the carpet sipping wine and watching my son. He was flying the robot around the room and making zooming sounds. In the middle of a story I still wanted to understand.
So the robot destroys himself, I said. And his legs don’t work anymore. And that’s why has to fly. He’s not looking for anything—he just wants to keep moving. I get that part. But here’s what I still don’t get. What made the robot shoot himself? Did he mean to? Or was it an accident?
He meant to, he said.
Why would he want to shoot his own legs?
He was sacrificing himself. Like the Iron Giant.
Like the Iron Giant, I said. But for what? What is he sacrificing himself for? Who is he saving?
I don’t know, he said.
I finished the glass of wine and asked: Do you remember the story of Jesus?
He set the robot down and closed its wings. Then he fanned the wings open again. Dad, he said, can you stop asking questions?
He lifted the robot and walked to the toy box. I leaned back on the floor and spread my arms out: a cross.
Two disciples are walking home through the desert. A stranger appears and asks why they look so sad. Because of Jesus, they say. But Jesus had to die, the stranger explains. And it’s only then—as they come to understand the reason for his death—that the disciples see that the stranger is Jesus.
What was I trying to understand?
I closed my eyes. Inside a dark space. I was looking up at space. But I felt as though I were falling through it. And the feeling was getting lighter. I let go and woke to the voice of my son.
He was telling another story with toys. In his left hand was the winged robot. In his right hand a skeleton from a Lego set. I was in a perfect world, the skeleton was telling the robot. Until somebody threw me out of that world and I landed in this world. And they said I couldn’t be in this world and had to go back. And I was filled with so much anger that I turned into a skeleton.
Oh, said the robot.
I hate it here, said the skeleton. I want to go home.
Don’t worry, the robot said. I’ll help you. We just need to find the magic portal. Come on, let’s go!
I wanted him to stay this way forever: In his own world, playing. And he wasn’t going to. He was going to forget who he was. And every day he would become more and more like me.
Dad! I need your help!
I sat up. He was on his hands and knees searching for something at the bottom of the box of toys.
The portal, he said, sniffling. I can’t find it.
Take a breath, I said. Where did you last see it?
I don’t know. I thought it was here. And now it’s not here. And I need it.
What does it look like?
Like a little tunnel, he said, tracing an O with his finger. You remember!
A year or two ago—I was losing track—we had taken a white cardboard tube from inside a roll of paper towels and written MAGIC PORTAL in black letters along the side. He used to drop Lego figures down the tube and imagine they were falling out of one universe and landing in another.
I looked around the room without moving. I would have seen it. It was somewhere in the house, I knew. In his bedroom, maybe. Or the basement. But I wasn’t going to go searching for it yet. Not until he calmed down. You need to calm down, I said. Why is this so important to you?
Because I need it, he said.
I took a tissue from the table and knelt to wipe the snot from under his nose. You don’t need it, I said. You want it.
But the skeleton, he said. He looked at the face of the robot in his hand, then threw the robot softly at the floor and began to sob.
I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him close. I held him there for half a moment before he pushed me away. He went to the other side of the room and lay down on the floor with his forehead against his arm, sobbing. No, he kept saying. No, no. This can’t be happening. Why is this happening? Why did you take this away from me?
I took a deep breath.
No one took anything away from you, I said. You’re doing this to yourself. Just try to think about what you’re doing. Think about what you want. When you think about what you want, you start to see that you don’t really want it. And then you can have it. You can have everything. You just need to want nothing. That’s the trick. That’s how it works. Do you understand what I’m saying?
I don’t care, he said, lifting his eyes to look at me.
But do you understand?
I said I don’t care.
Just, please, stop whining.
I don’t want to, he said, and he pressed his head against his arm and wept.
I closed my eyes and listened. In the sound of his tears I heard a note of self-awareness. He knew that he was crying. And this knowledge was making him cry harder.
I opened my eyes and sat down next to him. I rubbed his back and ran my hands through his hair. And after a while he began to forget. His fist was clenched against his heart. In his palm was the Lego skeleton.
Our emotions exceed the facts, I said. That’s why they’re so hard to express.
He turned over, resting his head on my leg and looking at the ceiling.
Maybe the portal fell through a portal, he said.
Joseph Cardinale is the author of The Size of the Universe (FC2). His fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, jubilat, and Western Humanities Review. He lives on eastern Long Island.